About Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag
Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam)
Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (1884-1954) is known as Baal
HaSulam (Owner of the Ladder) for his Sulam (ladder)
commentary on The Book of Zohar. Baal HaSulam dedicated his
life to interpretations and innovations in the wisdom of Kabbalah,
disseminating it in Israel and throughout the world. He developed a
unique method to the study of Kabbalah, by which any person can
delve into the depth of reality and reveal its roots and purpose of
Baal HaSulam was born in Warsaw, Poland on Sep
24, 1884. At the age of nineteen he was ordained as a rabbi by the
greatest rabbis of Warsaw, and for sixteen years he served as a
Dayan (Jewish orthodox judge) and a teacher in Warsaw.
Baal HaSulam’s teacher was Rabbi Yehoshua of
Porsov. In 1921, Baal HaSulam immigrated to Israel and settled in
the Old City of Jerusalem. The word of his coming quickly spread
among Jews who emigrated from Poland, and he soon became known as an
authority in Kabbalah. Gradually, a group of students formed around
him, attending Kabbalah lessons in the wee hours. Later on Baal
HaSulam moved from the Old City and settled in Givat Shaul, which
was then a new neighborhood in Jerusalem, where for several years he
served as the neighborhood rabbi.
Baal HaSulam spent the years 1926-1928 in
London. During his time in London he wrote the commentary to the
Ari’s Tree Of Life—Panim Meirot uMasbirot, which he
printed in 1927. Throughout his stay in London, Baal HaSulam
conducted extensive correspondence with his students in Israel,
which were assembled in 1985 in a book titled Igrot Kodesh
(Letters of Sanctity).
In 1933 Baal HaSulam published the tractates
Matan Torah (The Giving of the Torah), HaArvut (The Bond), and
HaShalom (The Peace).
Baal HaSulam’s two major works, the result of
many years of labor, are Talmud Eser Sefirot (The Study of the
Ten Sefirot), a commentary on the writings of the Ari, and
Perush HaSulam (The Sulam Commentary) on The Book of
Zohar. The publications of the 16 parts (in six volumes) of
Talmud Eser Sefirot began in 1937. In 1940 he published Beit
Shaar HaKavanot (The Gatehouse of Intentions), with commentaries
to selected writings of the Ari. Persuh HaSulam on the Zohar
was printed in 18 volumes in the years 1945-1953. Later on Baal
HaSulam wrote three additional volumes containing commentaries on
The New Zohar, whose printing was completed in 1955, after his
In his Introduction to the Book of Zohar,
Baal HaSulam writes as follows (item 58): And I have named that
commentary The Sulam (ladder), to show that the purpose of it is, as
with every ladder, that if you have an attic full of goods, then all
you need is a ladder to reach it, and then all the bounty of the
world is in your hands.
Baal HaSulam wrote a series of introductions
that prepare the student for proper study of Kabbalistic texts. Some
of these introductions are Preface to the Book of Zohar,
Introduction to the Book of Zohar, Preface to the Wisdom of
Kabbalah, Preface to the Sulam Commentary, General Preface to the
Tree of Life, and Introduction to Talmud Eser Sefirot.
In 1940, Baal HaSulam published the first and,
as it turned out, the last issue of the journal HaUma (The
Nation). The journal was shut down by the British Mandate
authorities after having received malicious information that the
journal propagated communism.
Baal HaSulam encountered enormous difficulties
printing his books. We can learn of the importance he ascribed to
printing and disseminating Kabbalah from the 2003 Israel Award
laureate Prof. Shlomo Giora Shoham’s description of his meeting with
Baal HaSulam in the early 1950’s.
I found him standing in a dilapidated
building, almost a shack, which housed an old printing press. He
couldn't afford to pay a typesetter and was doing the typesetting
himself, letter by letter, standing over the printing press for
hours at a time, despite the fact that he was in his late sixties.
Ashlag was clearly a tzaddik (righteous man) - a humble man, with a
radiant face. But he was an absolutely marginal figure and terribly
impoverished. I later heard that he spent so many hours setting type
that the lead used in the printing process damaged his health.
This excerpt was published on Dec 17, 2004 in Haaretz newspaper, in
a story by Micha Odenheimer.
Baal HaSulam did not merely put his ideas on
paper; he acted vigorously to promote them. He met with many leaders
of the Jewish settlement in Israel of the time, leaders of the Labor
movement and many public figures. Among these figures are David
Ben-Gurion, Zalman Shazar, Moshe Sadeh, Chaim Arlozorov, Moshe Aram,
Me’ir Yaari, Yaakov Hazan, Dov Sadan and the great poet Haim Nahman
According to Ben-Gurion, he met with Yehuda
Ashlag several times, and was apparently surprised: I wanted to
talk to him about Kabbalah, and he wanted to talk about Socialism
(Ben-Gurion Archive, Diaries, Aug 11, 1958).
In his essay Three Meetings and In Between
(Amot, Tel-Aviv, 1963, p. 49), Dov Sadan writes: Rabbi Yehuda
Leib Ashlag, among the greatest Kabbalists of the time, aimed at
turning the fundamentals of Kabbalah into a historic engine of our
generation. Through his socialistic perception, which is based on
the above, he sought contact with the Kibbutz Movement.
might be surprising to think that Baal HaSulam sought connection
with the Hebrew Labor Movement and its leaders, considering the
mental and educational chasm between them. However, deep study of
his writings reveals a fascinating and intriguing figure of an
erudite who was very much involved in the events of his time, both
in Israel and the world over, a figure whose ideas are considered
revolutionary and daring even to this day.